She Who Tells a Story

Written by: Celia Pannetier, the co-editor for this blog. Celia is in her third year studying International Relations in the department of War Studies, motivated by creative political expression,  political theory and intercultural perspectives. 

It was my first time inside the National Museum of Women in the Arts, in Washington D.C. I picked up a flyer at the reception desk entitled “She Who Tells a Story: Women Photographers from Iran and the Arab World” In it was written the purpose of the exhibition, with a note by the Chief Curator:

“Much of what I think I know about the experiences and viewpoints of women in Iran and parts of the Arab world, I know from the media. (…) [W]e want “She Who Tells a Story” to provide our visitors with fresh perspectives and encourage thoughtful discussions about how powerfully women artists reflect our world today.”

                                                                                                                                           -Kathryn Wat

As I meandered through the rooms, one work caught my eye the most. It was entitled “Mother, Daughter, Doll” by Yemeni photographer Boushra Almutawakel. Nine type-family portraits had been lined up in rows of three, with the artist herself, her daughter and a doll. They were all facing the camera and roughly placed in the same position. The only visible change throughout the sequence was their expression and clothing; the veiling was progressively more conservative, the fabric and guise less colorful, until the final photograph showed an empty black room with all three subjects gone.


While the last photographs resonates quite harshly, the dark humor in her artwork is key to the friendly debate she aims to instigate; such humor also reveals a bitter truth; women might as well disappear from the picture all together if conservative Yemeni men so desperately wished for them not to be seen. As the expressions slowly fade into dreary discontent, and the clothing gets darker and more permeating, Almutawakel tells the guardian she intends to depict her objection towards “excessive veiling and its idea of the ownership of women”. However in another interview she states she hopes that the same piece would “challenge and look at both western and Middle Eastern stereotypes, fears and ideas regarding the veil.” But how then are Western views supposed to be challenged, if the only thing they receive is apparent confirmation of the veil’s oppressive nature?

Indeed Almutawakel’s latter statement echoes Chief curator Kathryn Wat’s encouragement to look beyond the perspectives that the media may dictate. Yet has she not reinforced the popular mediated opinion, especially within American or western European media, of the veil being a degrading and anti-feminist garment?

To clarify, it is important to understand my criticism does not claim Almutawakel’s work is wrong, for the question is never whether art is right or wrong, but rather to what extent the artwork successfully conveys feelings and thoughts the artist intended to provoke.

From my perspective, the correlation between happiness and layers of clothing is apparent in the piece, the expressions imply misery and silence. Any intention of then breaking negative feelings towards the veil is forfeited over the strong imagery of oppression. Indeed, if the expression on their faces progressively gets unhappier in each photograph, the artist is already dictating what the viewer is supposed to feel. It implies women should feel exasperated by every added layer. Why then claim to challenge the negative perceptions of veils in their different forms, as she did? Is it not dangerous to assume that a work such as this one, exhibited in Washington D.C, will challenge some Western views when the artist herself shows the same clear bias? Is it not dangerous to confirm such a bias in societies where some voters exemplify the veil as a clear sign of non-assimilation, and where some countries such as France have gone as far as to ban the burqa (and recently the burkini) in public, also for the “sake of social cohesion”?

When I first came up to this photographic series, I had witnessed a young American couple standing in front of it, with the girl shaking her head, cross-armed with one palm on her chin. As she left, she whispered to her friend: “poor things.” Was that truly what the artist intended to provoke? At the very least, it certainly did not vary significantly from media coverage today.

Inherent in this work also lies the systematic assumption that veiling equates ownership, and ignores the notion that seeing this Islamic tradition as ownership is an opinion that ignores historical facts. Indeed one of the ways the Coran speaks of veiling is in a completely different manner; it speaks of the khimar as a simple veil for the sake of modesty, which many have wrongly substituted for the word “hijab”. These are important distinctions, as the khimar was meant to be a clear sign of social visibility for women, and indeed the first Muslim women wore them feeling profoundly liberated [1]. The discourse has become confused and encourages stereotyping, with dangerous consequences.

My aim is not to endorse veiling in its extreme forms. However Almutawakel needs to remember the gravity of these photographs if viewers are left to reaffirm negative stereotypes, that encourage disapproval of Islam as a whole. Sending a political message through art has its shortcomings; that of viewers being left to one’s own interpretation, that of allowing them to form their own interpretations, regardless of the artists’ intentions. And Almutawakel dangerously assumes people will understand the nuance behind her work. In increasingly xenophobic societies in the EU and the U.S especially, we need artists depicting what the media misses or distorts more than ever.

The debate has become lopsided, provoking laws obliging Muslim women to unveil. Almutawakel’s bias is not respectful of a woman’s comfort in keeping to her traditions, and she helps rationalise -unintentionally perhaps, but nonetheless- this common disrespect. Such disdain explains their increased marginalisation, and one needs to be careful how far interpretations can be diverted from the message intentioned.

Indeed we should never forget a woman’s concerns regarding the veil, but god forbid we accord the state a justification for their discriminatory acts, stripping Muslim women bare of what might once have been their pillar of strength.

[1] Le Monde des Religions, September-October edition 2016 (n°79)


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